“Must you have battle in your heart forever? The bloody toil of combat? Old contender…”
– Odyssey 12:132f, Fitzgerald
Homer’s Odyssey, written around 750 BC, is one of the first known written works that tells of the “psychologically injured” veteran who returns from war and fails to adapt to society. A man named Odysseus, which means “man of enmity”, endures both Trojan War and a decade of grueling travel before finding his way home. If you’ve read this story, you’re aware his homecoming was anything but peaceful. This perception of the psychologically wounded veteran permeates into today’s society. Millions of government dollars and countless non-profits exist to provide counseling and pharmaceuticals to help veterans re-integrate.
Some international humanitarian organizations buy into this perception by denying jobs to applicants who are qualified candidates with military backgrounds, due to the humanitarian principle of neutrality. I, a veteran of the U.S. Army, have been turned down three times because of my military background. On this Veteran’s Day holiday in the U.S., I want to challenge the perception of the veteran written by Homer in the 8th century, and make the case that veterans returning to places of conflict is healing for themselves and for the citizens of the conflict-affected countries in which they are working.
Dave Hansen is a U.S. veteran of the war between the U.S. and Vietnam, having served as a med-evac pilot in the Khe Sanh Combat Base. On June 4, 1971, Dave was called to emergency evacuate a team of U.S. Army Special Forces from Hill 950 (just N. of Khe Sanh Airfield). Amidst an intense firefight within an enclosed area being overrun by North Vietnamese forces, Dave landed his helicopter and rescued his fellow soldiers. While the level of fire after takeoff forced Dave to make another emergency landing, all aboard survived and successfully evacuated. Fast-forward to 2012, Dave led a team of U.S. veterans from wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan back to Khe Sanh to meet with the same men the U.S. fought against from the Northern Vietnamese Army. These men, previously adversaries, planted trees at Khe Sanh and burned incense in honor of those who died on both sides of the war. While sharing an evening meal, tension between Vietnamese and U.S. veterans was palpable when Dave asked the ultimate question to his previous adversaries: “Where were you on June 4, 1971?” The ensuing dialogue had no anger, no condemnation, no accusations or even apologies for what was done. Simply humans, who by chance were born on different sides of a conflict, coming together to make peace with the past. An example had been set for the veterans of my generation.
During the first half of 2019, I was working for a humanitarian organization in Iraq. After completing a field visit with some Iraqi doctors in Sinjar, we were travelling back to Mosul and the Iraqis discussed about how life in Mosul was easier before what they referred to as the “American War” (just like in Vietnam, each side named this war by referring to the opposing country). They stated that while Saddam Hussein was evil, he kept the country together. A member of the group turned to me and said “You know, we understand why you invaded but you never should have left when you did. You can’t invade and just leave whenever you want.” In that moment I recognized three things: 1) I may be the only U.S. veteran these Iraqi colleagues have considered a friend, 2) the viewpoints of Iraqi citizens – in this case, doctors – is one of many sides of Iraqi society I had no exposure to when I was here as a soldier, and 3) I’m hearing an unfiltered perspective of the war not commonly shared when one is dressed in military uniform. As a human, these inter-cultural exchanges help to expand understanding of other perspectives and erase commonly-held stereotypes. As a veteran, this represented a powerful moment of being able to connect with a people I knew only through the bullet proof window of an M1114 HMMMV.
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Just outside the Baghdad International Airport there is a statue of Abbas ibn Firnas, who was the first man to fly in 875 BC. In 2006 my platoon simply called this statue “the Flying Man”. I remember the day when two vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) drove into a parked convoy of Iraqi government officials and killed many people right in front of that statue (I only heard the explosion, and wasn’t present). What may stay in the memory of anyone whose experienced the aftermath of a VBIED is the smell. Fast-forward to 2019; I’m doing a VISA run through Baghdad and am standing in front of the Flying Man. In my mind, the smell was still there, yet what was a dangerous place with guard towers and concertina wire was now a beautifully landscaped park. The T-barriers that protected buildings from bombs were gone. Malls, cafés, parks with beautiful statues now marked the areas I associate with violence. Initially I felt angry, in that I wanted Baghdad to always be how it was in 2006. On the other hand, Baghdad was refusing to remain associated with war and chose to reclaim its rightful identity as a nexus of culture and learning. When friends ask me what Baghdad is like, my answer is much different than before. Baghdad, I tip my hat to you and wish you well.
Veterans from all countries are too often denied positions with humanitarian agencies because of their military backgrounds. We overlook practical experience negotiating with community leaders, providing lifesaving support in the absence of hospitals, and how to care for staff—physically and mentally—in adverse circumstances. Moreover, there is growth and healing for veterans and the local community when given the opportunity to connect from a position of nonviolent cooperation, which overrides the ‘othering’ that naturally occurs in war. Dave Hansen set the example that this type of exchange—for those who are ready—can help both veterans and citizens of conflict-affected countries make peace with the past.